"When I started it, I had no idea how big it would get," Kevin McGehee said shortly after the 8th Annual Wild Game Supper at the East Commerce Baptist Church.
The Rev. James Hickey, pastor of the church, says the Wildlife Ministry isn't a fund raiser for the church. Indeed, many of the same men, according to McGehee, recently raised $1,000 to make deer-burger that's fed 360 families through Hunters for the Hungry a project sponsored by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA).
The Wild Game Supper is, however, outreach, and there was a message from a preacher that night when fathers, sons, uncles, nephews, strangers, hunting buddies and other Middle Tennessee men had chow in a tent pitched on the front yard of the church.
Jimmy Sites, producer and host of his Spiritual Outdoor Adventures show on satellite TV channels, was the guest speaker and he compared the second chance he had to kill a big ol' buck deer to Christ's sacrifice on the cross for the sins of mankind. He called his trophy The Redemption Buck, a title styled like other episodes of the show.
Before Sites started his ministry for hunters, he was a far more traditional pastor for churches since college in Little Rock, Ark. He's also worked at the New River Baptist Church and in conjunction with Michael W. Smith. But he realized those in church were, obviously, already there, so he turned to mass media an an attempt to attract more to church through his non-profit production company.
He also worked on more traditional Christian broadcasts with the same conclusion: "Very few non-Christians watch those... They're good and edify the saved, but they probably don't reach the un-churched."
Sites loves to hunt and realized 24 million people buy hunting licenses and 32 million buy fishing permits, so he decided to "do what Jesus did and go to where the people are and know what their interests are," he said in a Sunday afternoon interview.
It seems to have worked. "Thirty two men and boys made a first time commitment to walk with Jesus... and ... another 38 decided to recommit," he said.
There was no rush of men at the end of his sermon. It was more private. They came from a sanctuary filled with men, most wearing camouflage, free ball caps and work boots.
That's what ended the Saturday night supper, but before and during the meal there were classic high-jinks, big boy pranks and the self-assuredness of real men. No quiche was consumed at the wild game supper.
Every one of the men replied, when asked if they could tell the difference between the various kinds of meat: Yes. There a different texture and flavor. Several pronounced elk meat better than beef.
Big, deep, metal trays of meat, beans and veggies with, meat and meat on sticks were set out on one church folding table after another, all labeled with a slip of paper to identify them, including bobcat and one that simply had a question mark on the paper. That tray was emptied fast.
Sites said he like the bobcat and when it was noted that raised questions about Oriental food, he commented, "Their food is good," although he moved on to comment on the marinade for the elk.
During supper, Bubba Wooten said buzzard had been a label used for one tray just to aggravate the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Officer.
TWRA Wildlife Officer Doug Lowery, a member of the Cornersville Baptist Church, attended and said the Wild Game Supper "is a great ministry. I'm tickled to death that these men put this on."
As for the meat labeled "?," Lowery said, "Those are always fun to try. It was good."
McGehee said dove, duck, quail, pheasant, deer, moose, elk, caribou, catfish and turtle were served. As for the bobcat: "That was a joke," McGehee said.
Pork chops were labeled red tail hawk one year for Lowery's benefit.
First-time attendees included Dirk Shelton of Florence Street and his son, Chenney, 8, and both liked what they ate. They'd had eaten venison before, but not elk.
Bill Waters of Double Bridge Road is a member of the church, but it was his first time to be involved with the wild game supper, he said. Waters brought stripe fish from Wheeler Lake.
He also brought deer sausage made under the watchful and experienced eye of Ken Dawson, 70, who learned at age 14 from his grandfather in New York State how to make deer sausage. Dawson's wife, Nancy, made the cloth bags used for packing. Deer sausage is five pounds of venison with one pound of pork sausage, plus sage, and other seasonings "to taste," the old pro said.
Keith Green, one of the cooks for the supper, said cooks ate a special breakfast early that Saturday and "nibbled all day long" while the cooked, presumably "to taste."
"We try to have it all hot when everybody gets here," Green said. "We probably cooked 125 pounds of fish and about 200 pounds of chops."
There are other statistics on the food, men, hunt and fellowship, but it's notable that the Rev. James Hickey, pastor of the East Commerce Baptist Church reports his average Sunday morning attendance is about 300, or approximately the same number of men who attended the supper on Saturday.
The church also has a wildlife ministry with an event nearly monthly, and one of them is this Saturday when the sign-in is 5-5:30 a.m. at the Huddle House restaurant on Nashville Highway. Teams are to compete for points with total payback of the $20 entry fee. One example: Coyote is valued at 12 points.
No coyote label was found at Saturday's supper.